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Polytech: a history with asterisks
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Updated: 09/04/2013 08:00:40AM

Polytech: a history with asterisks

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When the history of Florida Polytechnic University is written, it will have — or should have — quite a number of asterisks that point out the unusual, and in many cases unlikely, process by which it came to life.

To start with, it will be an institution few people wanted: not the University of South Florida, which was to have established a branch campus in Polk County under its own academic umbrella; not the Board of Governors, which exercises oversight over the state university system; not even the Legislature, which eventually created it at the behest of former State Senator J.D. Alexander.

It was an exercise in power politics.

Whatever its merits, Florida Poly is taking form on Interstate 4 near the Polk Parkway. It will open to its first freshman class in a year.

Our purpose is not to rehash old fights or to open old wounds, but to reflect on what it can mean to Florida, and to Polk.

The biggest initial drawback, other than the need to create a whole new university rather than using the established educational infrastructure of USF, is that it will open without accreditation.

Accreditation does not automatically make a school better, but it is the standard by which a school’s claim to legitimacy is established. And it takes time.

Graduating from an unaccredited university may have little importance to small employers whose primary interest is in the skills acquired, but in academic circles it is the essential measurement of educational stature.

Students attending or graduating from an unaccredited university, no matter how sound their educational skills, may find it impossible to transfer credits to other institutions, or to enter their graduate programs.

Similar impediments may be encountered in achieving professional certification in everything from law enforcement to education to medicine. It is a risk that the first students enrolling at Florida Poly must consider.

We have no doubt that the school — a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) institution — will achieve accreditation, just as have all other state universities in Florida. Whether that accreditation comes by the time the freshmen of 2014 become the Class of 2018 remains to be seen.

Balancing that uncertainty, at least to some degree, is the commitment of a foundation backing Florida Poly to provide scholarships to cover the four-year tuition of every member of the initial class. That is a powerful incentive at a time when today’s state universities charge what the most prestigious private schools in the nation charged a generation ago.

And there is the pride that comes with the novelty of being a member of Graduating Class No. 1.

As for transferability of credits, we suggest that the Board of Governors could require all universities in the state system to accept grades from all other universities in the system. In the United States Constitution, this would be called “extending full faith and credit.”

Because the same taxpayers support all the state universities, it would not be unreasonable to require them to recognize each other as academic equals.

Somehow, we have to believe that if a university can survive, even for a few years, without a football team, other challenges can be met and overcome.

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